Joan Didion once said, “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Too often, we try to fit in a box designed by other people. We force a happy face when we are feeling sad or ignore a pain when we want to cry out. We go to the parties and make the pies, when really all we want to do is be alone or get help for what we are going through.
The expectations of others aren’t the only problem, though. We place huge, sometimes impossible, expectations on ourselves, too. Being married by a certain age or making a certain amount of money or getting a certain grade. When we fall short of our own or others’ expectations, we beat ourselves up mercilessly.
What if you stopped? Literally stopped fulfilling others’ expectations and stopped putting expectations on yourself? To do that requires two things: acceptance of where you are, and a mindset shift.
As I recovered from the attack I endured, I was often frustrated that I wasn’t getting back to “normal” as quickly as I should. The people around me expected I’d slip back into my own life in a minute—maybe because I expected to do that, too. I was depressed and angry, and it created a vicious, self-defeating cycle of expectations, perceived failure, and frustration.
Being able to change your attitude or mindset can have such a tremendous impact on so many parts of the recovery process. For me, simply letting go of the expectation I had for myself that I had to be everything I was before my injury was a seismic shift inside myself. For months, I had refused to acknowledge I had PTSD and get treatment because I didn't want to feel or seem weak. Ironically, the minute I admitted my struggle, I could look in the mirror and be honest with myself. Instead of feeling weak, I felt empowered.
Self-acceptance is one of the most powerful tools you have, yet many of us struggle to do that. We have to learn how to be okay right where we are, and to let others know they are okay just as they are. Instead of expecting to run five miles when you’ve had knee surgery, celebrate climbing the stairs or walking to get the mail. Don’t undermine the celebration with negative self-talk. Simply embrace what you have done, and the progress you are making. Recovery is not a straight road. Heck, sometimes, it loops right back almost to the beginning before making forward progress again. Most days you have to celebrate the small victories and feel gratitude in those. For instance: I'm still exhausted, but I'm a little less tired than yesterday, I was able to make it through the day without napping, I was finally able to get the dishes done after they have been sitting all week. I've realized and learned to accept that I'm not going to wake up one of these days and feel magically better, so I have to find the small triumphs in the midst of the pain and exhaustion and acknowledge them.
Because I was able to be honest with myself, my healthcare providers, and my loved ones, I could then speak directly to others about what I was feeling or going through and not feel shame or embarrassment. It was freeing for me, and liberating for others, because they felt safe to share their own struggles. We can band together in our fight, instead of drifting along alone and frustrated.
PTSD and invisible injury have the power to lessen every single day of your life if you let them. Being able to change your mindset and being able to bring a little bit of light and joy into your life can sometimes have as much influence as a medical intervention. I don’t have to dwell on hoping everything I am suffering from will go away, because now I focus on hoping something good will happen today, and tomorrow, and every day after that.
For more about my story, please pick up my book, You’ve Got Some Nerve: The Battle Back from an Invisible Injury.